~This essay was originally published Stone Canoe (2009)
My mother moved in with her father when she was fifteen years old. She traveled alone to his home in the
Adirondack village of on a train from Tupper Lake , where she’d been living with a couple who were strangers to her. Detroit
She and her father shared an apartment over his store; he sold phonographs, musical instruments, and Singer sewing machines. A photograph I found among her papers after she died, a photograph I had never seen, shows her standing next to him on a patch of grass in front of a wooden building. Her glossy black hair is pulled back with a ribbon; she is wearing a loose, light-colored dress with a big floppy collar, dark tights, and high, laced-up boots. Her father, a stocky man with thick dark hair, is dressed in a three-piece suit, white shirt, and tie. His expression is serious but kindly,
I think of this young girl walking home from school one fall afternoon. She sees that her father’s store is closed and a green shade pulled down over the glass on the front door. She climbs the stairs to the apartment, clutching her books to her chest. The rooms are silent.
“Papa, I’m home,” she calls. Not a sound. Her father’s bedroom door is closed. She knocks gently but hears no response. She pounds harder, then rattles the knob. She realizes that the door is fastened from the inside with a metal hook. She runs into the kitchen and grabs a long spoon, then comes back and pushes at the hook until it gives way and the door flies open.
Her father’s body is sprawled on the floor. A torn piece of rope is tied around his neck; the rest dangles from the brass light fixture, its frayed end swaying back and forth in the breeze from an open window.
Fifty years had passed before she told this story to me and my two sisters. It was the first time the three of us had heard it. Even after she married my father, she told us, she couldn’t discuss it with him. “One day he said, ‘Did your father really take his own life?’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’”